The Digital Future of Creativity

Whilst living in London I had the pleasure of sharing a flat with a music producer whom I greatly admire. We had met a few years previously at a bar where I once worked, in a particularly trendy area of London at the time, (perhaps not so much now, trendy areas tend to shift like the tides in London). Running under the moniker of ‘Blende’, my friend had been an early exponent of the minimalist tech sound, well respected by those who knew the underground scene, producers and DJ’s alike. Although I was no aficionado I enjoyed his work, but the fact was that his sound wasn’t mainstream and never would be.

When I moved into his flat years later, this talented producer still found himself struggling against a music culture that seemed happy enough to reward banality through the likes of the X-Factor, Pop Idol, etc, etc. As if this wasn’t enough, suddenly he found himself faced with another mountain to climb, driven by the proliferation of streaming platforms allowing access to music for free. This was the rise of the Spotify generation, another link in the evolutionary chain of generation ‘free’.

My friends opinion on this situation is simple: up-and-coming artists are being choked to death by free-to-stream sites that serve only to increase the profit margins of labels, an opinion backed by David Byrne: ‘The major record labels usually siphon off most of this income, and then they dribble about 15-20% of what’s left down to their artists’. Smaller labels are known to provide more equal profit-sharing, but with profit margins at an all-time low (Spotify pays pittance for most of the music it holds), we can only wonder at how long smaller labels will be commercially viable. What we have here is a pincer move, labels are paying artists less, and at the same time strengthening their hold on the market. It is difficult not to feel sorry for up and coming artists in this world, but it is also only one side of a very complex argument.

As a recent winner of the Mercury Music Prize, James Blake has suggested that audiences are simply consuming music in a different way. The fact is, Blake made the vast majority of his album in the comfort of his own home. The same technology that has enabled consumers to access free content is now making music production cheaper and more accessible, whilst a tech-savvy new generation is now able to take more advantage of the latest advances. Gone are the days of wieldy amplifiers dragged around the city to recording studios. You can drop a tune in a day now, between breakfast and lunch, if so inclined. At the same time, sharing free content is fast becoming a way to market yourself to a global audience. The market is changing, and the only thing now is for artists to get together and work out a way of making a living from what they do. There’s no point complaining about a storm, you just have to figure out a way of weathering it.

The debate has raged across all media platforms since the dawn of the internet all those years ago (it’s really not that old at all, it’s just that we can’t see life without it so we can’t see back that far anymore). I remember discussing this issue with a group of like-minded liberal friends when I was flirting with the idea of journalism as a career, as I began to look closely at how I could do this and get paid for it. Having done a fair amount of research I found my originally stringent position on the nature of the internet had begun to sway. I suddenly found myself swimming back against a tide of liberal thought that touted the freedom of the internet, a freedom that essentially meant ‘free’. How would I make a career out of writing? My own selfishness aside, how were media outlets, central to the democratic foundation of any ‘free’ society, going to monetize the internet? I received a lukewarm response to this, and rightly so. I am liberal at heart and ultimately believe the internet is a fantastic tool for the future of democratic freedom. This doesn’t negate the fact that we are shaking the foundations of democratic accountability, and we need to keep a watchful eye on this. Citizen journalism is all good and well, but journalists will still be required to filter and act as an accountable body in the dissemination of information in the future. How will they be rewarded for taking on this vital role?

That said, the internet is not some all-consuming demon spawned to suck the soul from humanity by destroying its art forms and the accountability for sources of information. It is merely a reflection of the society it exists in, and that society currently values skills within a monetary system. What the internet has succeeded in doing is to democratise the creative arts, alongside Modernist and Post-modernist artists who worked to broaden the horizon of what constitutes art in the first place. Elitist artistic dogma has been broken down and the differentiation between popular and ‘high’ culture has dissolved considerably since the heady days of Shakespeare and Eliot. This is of course a good thing, but it also leaves us an undeniable truth: more people have access to the production of artistic forms, something that once remained the privilege of a small group. In this case, each individual product is valued less.

I write this post for free, and you will read it for free. I write poetry that will most likely not lead to any sort of remuneration (of course, it was up to me to choose a dying art form within which to work). I’m not sure how I will get paid, or if I will get paid for what I do. In this I am not far removed from the various artists down the years that have changed the landscape of art for those that followed (though this is probably the closest relationship I can pretend to have with such artists). The difference is that now we are facing a future in which no artist is paid for their work, and this has profound implications for the future of the industry. Sadly, the only creative industry that appears to be thriving today is the banking industry, as over-payed financiers buy and sell imaginary financial products and cleverly think up new ways to get us to cover any losses they might incur along the way. If only artists could do the same. Instead of complaining, we desperately need to find a way to preserve an important part of our culture, the way we see and represent the world around us. The imagination is what drives us forward, and art plays an important role in sparking it. Journalists serve to filter information and ensure we are seeing a broad reality that has a basis in truth.

There is one ray of light with the advent of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, a new form of raising capital for creative works. It is the beginning of a solution for artists of the future, though we are far from an answer to this complex issue. As I said earlier, the internet is simply a reflection of the society it exists within. In this case, perhaps instead of struggling to monetize content on the internet we should seriously consider changing the way we value individuals and what they produce. Until then we simply need to find new ways to serve rapidly changing markets.

If you would like to check out Blende’s work for free, here’s a link to his recent release on Youtube: